x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The new Cold War is between Arsenal and Chelsea

As the London clubs go head-to-head, Richard Jolly looks at two teams in three-horse races with different ideologies, but one goal.

Courage is a quality the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admires, and he will be expecting his team to show some of that at Stamford Bridge today against Chelsea, who have won five of their last six meetings.
Courage is a quality the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admires, and he will be expecting his team to show some of that at Stamford Bridge today against Chelsea, who have won five of their last six meetings.

Football used to be a contest of 11 men against 11 on a grass pitch. As Thursday in the British capital showed, the global game is infinitely more complex now.

In West London, Chelsea failed in a bid to buy back the freehold for Stamford Bridge from the Chelsea Pitch Owners, a group of supporters. Further to the north, Arsenal endured, rather than enjoyed, their Annual General Meeting.

It contained a rare and brief speech by the American investor Stan Kroenke.

The majority shareholder at the Emirates Stadium is nicknamed Silent Stan; he is positively loquacious in comparison with Roman Abramovich, however.

Chelsea's billionaire benefactor is, more than anyone, the man responsible for ending Arsenal's era at the summit of English football. His injection of money changed the parameters for managers; he is the UK's Russian revolutionary.

It is he who Arsene Wenger has in mind whenever he mentions "financial doping," a phrase the Arsenal manager coined. It is fitting that a week where the respective clubs' fortunes have been in focus concludes with today's derby.

For Wenger, and perhaps his American owner, this is the new Cold War, a clash of diametrically opposed ideals. "I believe the values we defend are highly defendable," the Frenchman said. "We want to do things with class and be very brave. Courage is a quality I admire, because it is highly needed in the modern world."

Courage, for him, entails fiscal prudence in a world of big spenders. Arsenal may have paid £10 million for Mikel Arteta, but Chelsea's sixth-choice striker, Romelu Lukaku, was costlier. Whatever the physical statistics of the Stamford Bridge pitch, this is no level playing field.

It helps account for Chelsea's record of five wins in the last six meetings. Theirs is a superiority on both micro and macro levels; since Wenger's Invincibles won the title in 2004, none of their successors have finished above Abramovich's arrivistes since then.

While Wenger has prioritised technique and pace, Chelsea's physical power, organisation and ruthlessness has brought a pragmatic superiority. Didier Drogba has bullied Arsenal to the tune of 13 goals in 14 games.

Yet eras end.

Drogba is 33 and suspended today. Wenger may be an implacable opponent of Chelsea's ethos, but their evolution should appeal to the aesthete in him.

The Arsenal manager admired, but did not recruit, Juan Mata in the summer. Fernando Torres, available again after a ban, is a slicker, speedier spearhead than Drogba and will confront Arsenal's best defender, if Thomas Vermaelen is deemed ready to start.

Andre Villas-Boas and Wenger will never be soul-mates, but these are enemies with shared ideas, about attacking full-backs, high defensive lines, midfield playmakers and nominal wingers who make angled runs into the penalty area.

They are men with similar predicaments, too: each is third in his particular three-horse race, with Chelsea trailing the two Manchester clubs in the quest for the title and Arsenal behind Tottenham and Liverpool in the battle to finish fourth.

It is a moot point who would be damaged more by defeat.

But in a week when internal dissent has become apparent to outsiders, both clubs have resorted to calls for unity. "We live in a world where we fight with people who have extremely high resources," said Wenger, constructing his own siege mentality.

Rather more bluntly, the Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said: "We are all Chelsea fans and I can only hope that we all get together, support this club and beat the crap out of Arsenal."

Arsenal have emerged bloodied and weakened from past clashes, but they possess an advantage that will be all too apparent to Buck and the visiting Kroenke when they gaze around Stamford Bridge today.

While Arsenal - or many of their supporters, anyhow - are jealous of Chelsea's buying power, Abramovich envies Kroenke the Emirates Stadium, with its 60,000 seats and ability to generate revenue.

Yet, as Wenger said: "They still can [fulfil their potential] because at the moment they have a chairman who can compensate for the loss they have in the stands. But the day they will have to live with their national resources, the size of the stadium can become a problem."

But, after the talk of balance sheets, corporate facilities, shareholders big and small, the profit margins and the AGM, a football match will break out today.

sports@thenational.ae